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Putting on a spacesuit in the Arctic

Earthbound explorers get a taste of Mars exploration during a simulated EVA mission — and share the experience with others.
/ Source: Mars Society

The helmet came off with no trouble, thanks to Jan’s help, but when I pulled at the duct tape on my ear, I yelped. It was stuck firmly to my hair, and it soon became obvious that some of my locks would have to be sacrificed to free me from the adhesive. You might ask, “Why would April put duct tape on her ear?” That’s a good question. Duct tape is the most reliable way to affix a radio headset to one’s ear, and when one is leading an EVA team, one needs good radio communications.

ONCE IN THE analog extravehicular activity suit, we can barely hear those around us. We rely on radios to speak to one another and to the folks back at the Hab. The communications are mundane sometimes, like “Over here — look at this rock!” Sometimes they’re important: “EVA, this is Hab. The clouds are moving in from the south, the wind is picking up, and the temperature is dropping. Be careful out there. Over.”

So this morning, when Steve McDaniel was helping me gear up, I chose duct tape. It was a good decision. Today was a big day for Digby Tarvin and me. We are finally in full sim, no longer on generator duty and water-fetching detail. We turned over those tasks to Steve and Jody Tinsley last night (Peter Lee and Ella Carlsson go on duty next week). That meant that Steve stayed behind at the Hab, Jody served as Ghost Rider, and as third in command on FMARS Crew 8, I led the extravehicular activity.

Leading an EVA doesn’t necessarily mean literally leading the procession of all-terrain vehicles across the landscape. Ella, our navigator for the day, did that. She was responsible ahead of time for planning our route, putting the appropriate waypoints in her GPS, and taking waypoints as we entered new territory today. Last night she and I conferred about routes to our two destinations, north to the top of Marine Rock, where Peter wanted to collect samples, and south across the nearest part of the crater to Trinity Lake and a rumored geothermal spring.

Today, as I suited up, I felt as though I were arriving at last on the Red Planet. I have seen our Mars on water runs and on EVA as Ghost Rider, but till today, not through the visor of a helmet. When the helmet went on and the air hoses were connected this morning, I was in effect isolated from the Hab and my companions. I looked out the porthole at the crater beyond us and stood a little taller.

At last I was fulfilling a desire I have had since learning I’d be coming to the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. I was stepping beyond the mundane, going where few folks have ever gone before. And I was doing it in a spacesuit.

Why do we venture out in simulated astronaut gear, when it’s clear to all of us that it would be easier to drive around and photograph the geological features and collect microbiological samples in regular outdoor clothing? Sure, it makes sense to wear a windbreaker or rain jacket, but why a spacesuit? It’s a reasonable question. Part of the point of our simulation is for researchers truly to understand (through experience) how many restraints are put on a person who cannot efficiently and easily use all his five senses, who is encumbered by extra weight and equipment that inhibit his movement.

Understanding these limitations is essential to designing equipment that astronauts could use in their EVAs on Mars; being able to test designs on the scene, as it were, is also useful to designers of suits and equipment. And scientists and engineers who come here and cope with the restrictions of the suits and of the living quarters can develop better experiments and devices to help astronauts get the most out of the time they are at a space station, exploring a new planet.

InsertArt(1960623)Now let’s face it. I am not going to design equipment or experiments that astronauts will use someday. I am, in my other life, an English teacher. But I am here to have this experience and to share it, and this fact, too, gets back to the spacesuit question and to communications issues that caused me to put duct tape on my ear this morning. The Mars Society gives me a chance to be here because I can communicate what it’s like to be here to those who aren’t.

If there’s research going on, if there are analog stations around the world and groups of researchers worldwide at work pouring their energies, money, and resources into the project of mounting a manned mission to Mars, if there are graduate students devoting thousands of hours designing prototype rovers, and scientists devoting months and years to camping in a desert studying craters or peering through telescopes, and engineers designing how such a mission can be mounted, and doctors exploring ways humans can withstand the physiological effects of long duration space flights in microgravity, and English teachers and plumbers and truck drivers and bank tellers and lawyers and farmers and mechanics and nurses and schoolchildren don’t know about it, it’s almost as if it isn’t happening.

I have friends who say that when as children they saw Neil Armstrong take man’s first step onto the moon, they thought that someday their children would see a station on the moon, or maybe that sending ships into space beyond our moon would be commonplace. Instead, space has become something most folks wish their closets had more of — for the public, it is no longer a place that inspires dreams, that creates visions.

Except for hearing occasional news about the space shuttle or a probe launch here or there, the public isn’t really aware that there are folks out here on Devon Island — or anywhere — working passionately to reach beyond the accomplishments of the Apollo program. And that’s one reason I, an English teacher, donned a spacesuit this morning and put duct tape on my ear.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to